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Home | Articles | The “Celebrated” William Matthew Prior (1806-1873)

olk painting, often called primitive or naive, is traditionally recognized as the body of works created by artists who painted outside of the academic canon. Portraiture, which has always enjoyed a prominent place in the hierarchy of painting, was a common form of folk painting.

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, before photography made it possible to have inexpensive, true likenesses, portrait painters, or limners, worked in most urban cities or traveled from small town to small town, memorializing their clients for future generations. Characterized by a flat, linear style with little modeling or shading, these folk portraits are extremely charming and are highly desirable to collectors.

FIGURE 1A: William Matthew Prior, The Artist as a Young Man: A Self Portrait,
1825, Oil on canvas, 23 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches. Reverse signed “Prior, WM.:
Matthew Prior/Painter.Portland, Maine/Oct.12, 1825.” Private Collection, photo courtesy
of Wayne Pratt, Inc.

William Matthew Prior was one of the most prominent and influential folk portrait painters of the nineteenth century. He was born in Bath, Maine, in 1806, the second son of shipmaster Matthew Prior and Sarah Bryant. Little is known about his training, but a small portrait of a young man signed and dated W.M. Prior, Painter/Formerly of Bath/1824/3 piece on cloth/Painted in C. Codman’s Shop/Portland, Maine, indicates that he was traveling and painting professionally by the time he was eighteen. Charles Codman (1800-1842) was a portrait, landscape and ornamental painter and this inscription raises the possibility that William Prior studied with him.

In 1828, Prior was still working in Portland, where the following advertisement ran: Portrait painter, Wm. M. Prior, offers hisservices to the public. Those who wish for a likeness at a reasonable price are invited to call soon. Side views and profiles of children at reduced prices.

It was during 1828 as well when he met and married Rosamund Clark Hamblen, who came from a Portland family with a long tradition as painters and glaziers. The Priors lived with her brothers, Nathaniel, Joseph and Sturtevant J. Hamblen for a few years before the entire group moved to Boston in 1839. These painters formed the basis for what is now referred to as the Prior-Hamblen School, a group of an undetermined number of artists who painted in such a similar artistic style as to render their unsigned works virtually indistinguishable from each other.

FIGURE 1B: William Matthew Prior,
Reverse of The Artist
as a Young Man:
A Self Portrait.
Photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc.
In 1846, William and Rosamund moved to separate quarters at 36 Trenton Street in East Boston, where he established his studio, “The Painting Garret” and where he lived until his death in 1873.

The studio served as the hub of his business, and it was here that he prepared his own canvases, ground his own paint and made his own frames. From 1839 until 1873, Prior painted portraits for both local residents and for patrons as far away as Baltimore, Maryland. When local commissions were sparse or sporadic, Prior earned his living as an itinerant portrait artist going out on trips, traveling by horse and wagon to nearby towns in New England and by train to more distant places. He went from house to house, hoping to stay at the homes of prospective clients and it is likely that he occasionally exchanged his services for room and board.

In addition to painting portraits, which were done in oil or gouache on canvas, academy board or cardboard, he advertised his services as a bronzer, oil gilder, varnisher, japanner, as well as offering fancy, sign or ornamental painting and reverse painting on glass and clocks. He occasionally painted landscapes, as well as adaptations of prints. It is interesting to note that although he was born into a family with maritime history, and lived on the New England coast all of his life, he is not known to have painted any marine scenes.

Often characterized as flat and stylized, folk portraits are strikingly different from academic portraits. William Matthew Prior was exceptional as he was able to paint in two styles, one a flat, quick manner with broad brush strokes and with little shade or shadow, and the other in a more academic tradition with modeling and varied tonation. He advertised his flat method in an announcement from 1848 that reads: Portraits/Painted in this style! /Done in about an hour’s sitting/Price $2.92, including Frame, Glass, &c. /Please call at Trenton Street/East Boston/Wm.M.Prior. Research suggests that the flatness of American folk portraits was not necessarily a result of ineptitude but in some cases was a conscious choice of the sitter, and probably dictated by cost. The late Nina Fletcher (Mrs. Bertram K.) Little, the prominent folk art collector and scholar, claimed that Prior could paint well when he wished to, or when it was financially profitable, but for his less affluent patrons he adopted a style that provided a passable likeness with the least possible expenditure of his own time and effort. She further noted that the fees for his portraits ranged from $10 to $25 (between $145.00 and $360.00 today,) with gilt frames from $3 to $10; the number of details or props included in the portrait would have influenced the cost as well. The fees Prior charged for his flat portraits were comparable to those charged by other contemporary portraitists.

FIGURE 2A: William Matthew Prior, Captain Christopher Andrews, 1852, Oil on canvas,
32 1/4 x 35 1/4 inches. Reverse inscribed “Capt. Christopher Andrews by Wm. M. Prior, of Boston, Mass, May 13th, 1852.” Private Collection, photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc.

A signed self-portrait, done early in the artist’s career, reveals that Prior had mastered at a young age the ability to render likenesses in an academic and sophisticated manner (Figure 1a.). The presence of a halo of light around his head, the use of shadows and highlights, as well as modulations in skin tone, combine to create a sense of depth and dynamism. Prior depicted himself as a confident artist, holding his brush and palette with ease and assurance.

The composition of the painting and contrast of colors is done successfully and competently, a quality consistent throughout his career. The back of the portrait reads Prior, W.M.: W. Matthew Prior/Painter/Portland, Maine/Oct. 12, 1825 (Figure 1b.).

An example of Prior’s “flat” style can be seen in a group of four portraits he painted of the Andrews family of New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1852. At the time the portraits were painted, Captain Andrews was listed as a trader and merchant in New Bedford, and was part owner of two ships, the whaler “Minerva” and the schooner “Colonel Simmons,” both out of New Bedford. He was also a wealthy grocer and landowner. Prior includes in these portraits items indicating the wealth of the Andrews family. He alludes to the captain’s profession by depicting him holding a telescope and seated against abackground with a lighthouse and a ship (Fig. 2a). Prior shows Ruth Andrews in expensive clothing and jewelry, against a column and swag drapery in the background and holding a rose (Fig. 2b). He signed and dated the backs of the portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, and it is extremely interesting to note that on the back of her portrait he referred to himself as “the celebrated W.M. Prior” (Fig. 2e–2f). It is unclear if other portraits exist with a similar inscription, or the reason behind his use of the word “celebrated.”

FIGURE 2B: William Matthew Prior, Mrs. Ruth Andrews, 1852, Oil on canvas, 32 x 35 1/4 inches. Reverse inscribed “Ruth Andrews painted by the celebrated W.M. Prior of East Boston, Mass, May 13th, 1852.” Private Collection, photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc.

William Matthew Prior is perhaps best known for his portraits of children, which are charming and sentimental and capture the innocence of childhood. He followed a format in which he included with the subject personal accessories that often identified the gender or interests of the sitter. The portraits of the Andrews’ children are no different in this respect (Fig. 2c–2d): one of the two boys holds a rolled manuscript while the other holds a flower. The two girls each wear jewelry and fine clothes; one holds a fan while the other holds a book, suggesting their level of education. The portraits of the Andrews’ family, while charming and representational of a wealthy family, do not have the same sense of depth or atmosphere of Prior’s self-portrait.

Although William Prior altered his technique to suit the aesthetic and financial needs of his clients, certain stylistic elements remain relatively consistent and are useful in recognizing and attributing his unsigned paintings. He employed the use of white paint to highlight around the nose, mouth and eyes of his sitters and most of his subjects are represented with a bulbous-tipped nose drawn with a continuous line from the eyebrow to one side of the nose. The edges of the hands and nails are outlined by brown lines of paint and the ends of the mouth have diagonal lines to indicate cherubic cheeks.

FIGURE 2c: William Matthew Prior, Two Andrews Children, Oil on cardboard, 17 3/4 x 24 inches. Private Collection, photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc.

Sturtevant J. Hamblen’s work, while similar to that of his brother-in-law, William Prior, can be distinguished by specific stylistic characteristics. He used clear, bold strokes and his paintings have a developed sense of balance and symmetry. The hands of his subjects are represented with tapered fingers with an outstretched index finger. The faces are usually salmon-colored with white highlights under the brows and large eyes. Hamblen also made an extensive use of primary colors as well as background props, including columns, draperies and windows open to show an exterior scene.

The daguerreotype was introduced in America in 1839 and became widely fashionable for portraiture by the early 1850s. They offered an arguably truer likeness and, at a cost of about $5 each, were significantly less expensive to commission than portraits.

FIGURE 2d: William Matthew Prior, Two Andrews Children, Oil on cardboard, 20 x 24 inches. Private Collection, photo courtesy of Wayne Pratt, Inc.

With the increasing popularity of photography, Prior was forced to offer other kinds of paintings to supplement his dwindling portrait work. In the 1860s, he made reverse paintings on glass of important historic figures, as well as topographical views, both real and imaginary. He was an ardent follower of William Miller, the chronologist who supported abolition and originated the Adventist movement, and late in life Prior became a spiritualist himself.

Prior’s marketing practices, his ability to accommodate the needs of his clients and his direct, pleasing portraits of middle- and upper class New Englanders produced a lively and colorful record of popular taste and fashion during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Whether painted in the academic fashion or the flatter style, Prior’s works are delightful and exemplary memorials of nineteenth century Americans.

FIGURE 2e: William Matthew Prior, Reverse of Mrs. Ruth Andrews.

William Matthew Prior’s portraits survive in both private collections and museums. A brief list of public collections which feature his work in their holdings includes: the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and the DeWitt Wallace Collection, Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia; Colby College Museum of Art, Colby, Maine; Fenimore Art Museum and the New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown, New York; Fruitlands Museums, Harvard, Massachusetts; Heritage Plantation of Sandwich, Sandwich, Massachusetts; Museum of American Folk Art, New York, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts; Old Sturbridge Village, Sturbridge, Massachusetts; Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine; and the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, Boston, Massachusetts.

FIGURE 2f: William Matthew Prior, Reverse of Captain Christopher Andrews.

Wayne Pratt, Inc., is a premier antique dealership specializing in 18th and 19th century Americana. Wayne Pratt, Inc. has been instrumental in forming several of the
most important private collections of folk paintings in this country.

There are two shops, one in Woodbury, Connecticut and a seasonal shop on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts.

Madelia Hickman works as a research associate for Wayne Pratt, Inc. in the Woodbury, Connecticut shop. She holds an M.A. in Art History from the University of California at Riverside, and has spent numerous years researching and cataloguing American furniture.

She recently completed the American Arts Course at Sotheby’s Institute in New York.
Wayne Pratt, Inc. is located at: 346 Main Street South, Woodbury, CT 06798; Tel.203.263.5676 and, 28 Main Street, Nantucket, MA 02554; Tel. 508.228.8788.

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